Papua New Guinea has responded with outrage over the killings of at least 22 people, including two pregnant women, in tribal violence Prime Minister James Marape has called the “saddest day of his life”.
The Post-Courier reported that at least 22 and up to 24 had been killed, after earlier reports said 16 had died.
Marape warned the perpetrators “I’m coming for you” and that they faced the death penalty after the slaughter in his electorate of Tari-Pori.
“Today is one of the saddest day of my life, many children and mothers innocently murdered in Munima and Karida villages of my electorate by Haguai, Liwi and OKiru gunmen,” Marape said in a statement on his Facebook page.
Health workers told local television EMTV that 16 people died in a 30 minute revenge attack on Monday and “it was difficult to identify the bodies because they were all chopped to pieces”.
Photos of the dead were posted on social media showing their bodies gathered up in mosquito nets.
Red Cross condemns killings
The International Committess of Red Cross (ICRC) regularly provides humanitarian aid after tribal fighting and wants access to the conflict zone.
“It’s quite horrifying, we can’t independently confirm the casualties but these sort of actions is exactly what we encourage all parties to the tribal fighting in the Highlands to completely avoid,” said Ahmad Hallak, head of mission in PNG for the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) told SBS.
“In the last year at least I haven’t heard of any attacks that have killed so many innocent bystanders not directly involved in the fighting, it’s definitely concerning and I hope it’s not the start of a trend.
“With the introduction of modern weapons we are seeing more and more the humanitarian consequences that you see in countries that dominate dominate the news, on a much smaller scale, but similar humanitarian consequences.”
Tribal fighting in the PNG Highlands is commonplace but now it is fuelled by tensions over wealth distribution to rival impoverished landowners from the country’s billion dollar resources boom.
“There is a lot of disgruntled land owners who are dissatisfied with the gas agreements, they’re not satisfied with how the government and how multinational corporations have done deals with them,” said Chimbu highlander Bal Kama, a PhD candidate in law and governance at the Australian National University (ANU).
PM warns attackers ‘time is up’
PNG police said it followed the killing of six people in an ambush after a compensation ceremony on Saturday.
“This is not a tribal fight where the opposing villages face each other on field [sic], this is guerrilla warfare,” chief inspector Teddy Augwi told the Post-Courier.
“The relatives of the deceased retaliated outside Karida village in an executed plan, raided and using high-powered rifles shot dead the … people.”
Marape warned the attackers their “time is up”.
“To all who have guns and kill and hide behind the mask of community, learn from what I will do to criminals who killed innocent people, I am not afraid to use strongest measures in law on you,” he said.
“Last week I responded to question on death penalty on the floor of Parliament, it is already a law.”
PNG has not repealed capital punishment though no-one has been executed for decades.
“With this incident the prime minister has made a commitment to see that the death penalty mechanism is put into place, the law has already been passed,” Kama said.
“Whether that’s a good thing or not, that’s a matter for debate, but I think we’ll see some development on that shortly.”
Local authorities in Tari have called for the government to order the deployment of security forces protecting resource mining projects to protect local communities.
“My electorate in Hela Province hosts LNG and power transmission line for Porgera gold mine and since 2012 I have been requesting for more permanent police yet Konedobu police headquarters has not supported me,” Marape said.
“How can a province of 400,000 people function with policing law and order with under 60 policemen, and occasional operational military and police that does no more than band-aid maintenance.
“In memory of the innocent who continue to die at the hands of gun-toting criminals, your time is up, before I had someone else to report to, now I have no one else to report to but the innocent you kill.”
When he was elected in May, Marape promised to make PNG the “wealthiest black Christian nation” on Earth using resource royalties.